The Pattern Trap

The Pattern Trap

Growing up in New England (and it’s probably true about growing up anywhere), I quickly learned that words had more, and often hidden, meanings than one could imagine. For instance, if I were to make a meal that my stepdad declared to be “interesting,” that was not a good thing. And “different” sits a step or two below “interesting” in the “do you like it?” category.

The ability to not take words literally, as you probably (and literally) know, is vital in life. Particularly if you teach. Many’s the time a student will say, “I always do this part wrong” or “I practiced a lot this week” and you find out that “always” isn’t even close to always and that “a lot” means the better part of a half hour total.

So, with this in mind, let’s first take a look at some other vague words, such as:

These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of this song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

Or how about these two: strumming pattern…

You can’t imagine how many times the Guitar Noise forum gets the question, “what is the strumming pattern to (fill in the name of whatever song you’d like)?” And while it is a valuable question, it is also a misleading one.

For instance, let’s take the Bob Dylan classic, Blowin’ In The Wind. If someone asked you what “the” strumming pattern was for this song, what would you say? Even Dylan himself has played this song in so many wildly different arrangements that you’d have to think hard about what you wanted to set as “the strumming pattern.” Here’s just a brief example of what’s possible, using only the first line:

Blowin in the Wind

And this isn’t taking into account the different stylistic things you could be doing, such as playing it in a punk, power chord arrangement or perhaps reggae or even a Stevie Wonder-inspired gospel rendition. (By the way, for a look at how you can create different genre-based arrangements, take a few minutes and read this old column on this very topic: Do You Genre Dance?)

For some people, defining “the” strumming pattern of a song is easy. They will cite the original recorded version of the song in question as their strumming pattern. But even this answer is not always so cut and dried.

Do me a favor and strum a chord, whatever chord you chose. Now pick a simple strumming pattern of four beats in length, perhaps something like this, using an Em chord:

Sample Strum Pattern

Are we good so far? Great! Now play this pattern for the length of an average song, say three-and-a-half minutes, and see if you can flawlessly stick to the pattern. Chances are likely that you can’t, that there’ll be little glitches here and there. Maybe you won’t hit all the strings on a beat somewhere or just catch one or two some place else. This is normal and it’s also good.

Quick aside – you might notice that I’m totally skipping the whole “down / up” debate that usually, pardon the pun, accompanies any talk about strumming pattern. That’s because “down” and “up” are almost always a function of specific rhythms and we’ll be looking at that very soon in an upcoming column.

But, for now, let’s get back to why it’s good to not play one specific pattern for the length of a song. If you did manage to play an entire song using one pattern, then your performance would sound incredibly wooden. Robotic might even be a better choice of words. This is why when you look at “authentic guitar recorded tablature” books, you might find passages that look like these:

Real Life Examples 1
Real Life Examples 2
Real Life Examples 3

By the bye, these patterns come from (1) Neil Young’s Heart of Gold, (2) Welcome To The Machine by Pink Floyd and (3) Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Hey Joe, taken from his Are You Experienced? album. When faced with transcriptions like this, you could (and an incredible number of people do) painstakingly try to hit the “correct” strings. Or you could use a little logic, coupled with a new bit of terminology to help you along.

First off, instead of looking at this as a “strumming pattern,” think of it as a “recorded performance.” This is what happened to get on the recording. Take a close look at each transcription. Heart of Gold is simply a measure of an Em7 chord (voiced as 022030) being strummed, while the second example finds David Gilmour of Pink Floyd strumming a measure (in 6 / 4 time) of Cmaj7 (voiced X32000). Jimi switches between barre chords of D (X5777X) and A (5X7655), with a slight ornamentation on the A chord when he adds the B note at the seventh fret of the high E (first) string.

My question to you would be “why get hung up on hitting specific strings when it’s obvious that they’re not concerned about it?” Remember when you tried to strum the whole chord for a length of time and found yourself sometimes not hitting all the strings you wanted to? That’s precisely what’s happening here, except for one important thing – these guitarists are simply playing chords. They each have their own style of strumming, their own little tics that make them play one string more often than others or to miss the high E string on occasion.

Most transcribers know this and usually won’t bother putting in this much detail. Instead, they’ll post a rhythmic pattern with a chord and leave you to strum the strings in whatever way you might happen to do. The Heart of Gold example would then look something like this:

Rhythmic Strum Notation

In many books, you’d find this notation written without the staff, simply floating above the staff containing the melody and lyrics.

Another thing we mentioned earlier was that you didn’t want to sound robotic when playing. It’s hard not to stress this too much. Music is alive and performing music is about being alive. Small catches (or “glitches,” if you want to still want to think of them as mistakes in your patterns) are actually interesting and beneficial to your listeners. As long as you’re keeping the rhythm and have the basic handle on your pattern, few people are going to come up to you and say, “You know, in the original recording, Neil plays three strings and not just two, as you did…” And anyone who does come up to you and say that truly needs a life! Just to prove a point, here are three relatively well known bits of music. See if you can identify them, even though none are played according to the “recorded performance” patterns:

An interesting sidebar to all this – when I was doing research while writing The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing Bass Guitar, I spent a great deal of time going over both bass tutorial books as well as books of transcribed bass parts from recorded songs. A very fascinating observation was that if you looked at music older than about 1985, the bass transcriber often wrote out the entire song. In the Are You Experienced? performance of Hey Joe, for example, Noel Redding’s bass part would certainly repeat itself, but he played all sorts of little variations of the bass line, some adding little rhythm tics, others using grace notes by means of slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs in order to spice things up.

But many, many bass transcriptions of newer songs could have very easily been done via “cut and paste,” which lead me to wonder whether or not the actual recording was also done that way. In this digital age, it’s not unheard of for producers of almost all genres of music to get the segment of music they like and then digitally splice together a bass part or even a rhythm guitar part. And while we’re used to this sort of thing in some genres of music, such as the sampled sections of modern R&B, it’s also done in rock “˜n’ roll.

So when you’re listening to a specific “strumming pattern,” listen hard and see if what you’re listening to isn’t really one pattern at all, but rather a combination of many different patterns. Maybe even one that has single notes and partial chords thrown in for good measure.

One of my reasons for bringing all this up is that our upcoming song lessons are going to exploring how to go about making your playing less “pattern reliant.” One of the important development stages you will face as a guitar player is when you realize that you want to play things in your own style. To step from copying to creating.

And hopefully, this little discussion on patterns will help you to get started!

And, as always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or songs (and/or riffs and solos) you’d like to see discussed in future pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forum page or email me directly at [email protected].

Until our next lesson…